Lockeland Elementary School in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Metro Nashville Public Schools is bucking a state law the governor signed into action Friday preventing school districts from requiring students to wear masks to ward off the COVID-19 pandemic.
The move comes after U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw in Middle Tennessee issued an order Sunday allowing the status quo for mask rules to remain in place in regard to the rights of disabled students. During an emergency hearing Monday, Crenshaw extended the order with an injunction while the case continues.
Attorneys representing students with disabilities filed a lawsuit against Gov. Bill Lee to stop the law from taking effect because it could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As a result, Metro Nashville Public Schools will continue to require masks until further notice from the court, according to a statement from Director of Schools Adrienne Battle.
“Our strong desire is to get to a point where masks are no longer necessary and our classroom environment looks like it did back before the start of the pandemic,” Battle said in the statement. “Unfortunately, there is still COVID transmission throughout our community, and we are still seeing dozens of cases a week of students testing positive for the virus.”
Battle also noted the Centers for Disease Control continues to recommend K-12 schools adopt universal masking rules to reduce the transmission of the disease in buildings and as students ages 5-11 receive COVID-19 vaccines at parents’ request. A person is considered fully vaccinated after five weeks of the first dose, she added.
“We would ask for your patience and understanding of the school tasked with enforcing these mask requirements until these legal issues can be resolved,” Battle said.
Lee signed the COVID omnibus bill into law Friday, along with measures allowing partisan school board elections, appointment of district attorneys pro tem in situations where DAs refuse to prosecute certain laws, and a shortening of states of emergency from 60 to 45 days.
The governor also signed a new order suspending a previous order that gave parents the ability to opt their children out of mask requirements in public schools. That was done in conjunction with the new COVID law taking effect, until the judge put it on hold.
McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider said Monday legal action was expected in response to the COVID-19 legislation but that the bill was designed to “balance public health and personal freedom” without violating people’s rights. McNally is “confident” the state will prevail in court, he added.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson issued a statement Monday after the judge’s decision calling it “misguided and the epitome of judicial overreach.”
Johnson, a Franklin Republican who sponsored the legislation, said he hopes the injunction will be temporary as the judge considers the bill in its entirety, including provisions for disabled and special needs students.
“We heard from many parents regarding their right to decide whether or not their child should wear a mask,” Johnson said in a statement. “Tennesseans expect public policy, including vaccine and mask mandates, to be formulated by their elected representatives, not by activist judges.”
The law allows school districts to mandate masks only in severe situations and then only one school at a time and for 14 days.
The Metro Nashville School Board adopted the mask mandate at the direction of the CDC and Metro Nashville Public Health recommendations. Williamson County Schools and Franklin City Special Schools also adopted mask mandates for a period but with options for parents to remove their children from the requirement.
Johnson pointed out the seven-day average for COVID-19 cases in all of Williamson County has dropped to 32.
In addition, Lee declined to sign legislation dealing with the authority of public health boards, which is designed to reduce the authority of health officials in the state’s six urban, independent jurisdictions during pandemics.
The measure will become law without the governor’s signature.
“I have spoken with Lt. Gov. (Randy) McNally and Speaker (Cameron) Section and am not signing this bill as it requires significant updates to account for the non-pandemic functions of public health departments,” Lee said in a statement. “We are committed to working together to address these changes during the regular session.”
In response, Kleinheider said McNally respects the governor’s position on the legislation.
Comptroller opens COVID-19 exemption site
The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office launched a new web page Monday where Tennessee businesses, government entities and schools can request an exemption from House Bill 9077/Senate Bill 9014 after the governor signed the measure into law Friday.
The measure prohibits most Tennessee businesses from mandating vaccines unless they obtain an exemption from the state.
The Comptroller’s Office, dubbed the “COVID czar,” can grant exemptions if an applicant shows that complying with the new law would lead to loss of federal funding and is necessary to meet a federally awarded contract, subcontract or postsecondary grant.
Companies and other entities needing an exemption can go to comptroller.tn.gov/covidexemption to apply. Those with questions can contact exempt.cot.tn.gov.
Legislators amended their COVID-19 legislation on the last night of a special session in late October when Ford Motor Co. and other companies and state entities questioned the move to keep them from requiring masks or vaccines for employees.
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